Karen Archey: Daily Equations
„Love, art, science and politics" Artist duo KwieKulik used their everyday lives in communist Poland of the 70s and 80s as material, documenting it in meticulous detail. They made no distinction between art and life, and their ephemeral, process-oriented works and Actions were built on the idea that art could be a foundation for a new and better world. The micro-institution PDDiU, based in the couple’s apartment, was a platform and documentation center for the unofficial art scene of socialist Poland. A profile by Karen Archey.
When was the last time the art world galvanized into wide-spread self-organization by a single cause? The short-lived, and arguably ultimately divisive efforts oft he Occupy Movement? Or as far back as the AIDS crisis oft he 80s and 90s? Does it take a political and social calamity for us, as artists and thinkers, to put aside the distractions oft he everyday to attempt effectuate change in our daily lives? How we make sense of and challenge the variably imperceptible or daunting sociopolitical forces in both theory and practice - to blend politics and art with life – has been a lasting topic of artistic inquiry.
Yet KwieKulik, over its 16-year span as an artistic and personal partnership, developed an idiosyncratic working method that melded artistic documentation, gallery administration, performance, mathematics, and praxeology (the study of human conduct), that 25 years later seems a winning, if unusual, amalgam. At the core of KwieKulik’s practice was a deep resistance to Soviet totalitarian communism and a commitment tot he fundamental values of democratic socialism, including self-organization and the solidarity of public life. The duo felt it incumbent upon them to shed light on the living conditions under the People’s Republic of Poland – even going as far as to use their infant son as a staple in their work. (It should be mentioned that KwieKulik probably wouldn’t differentiate between a mound of clay and a human as art material. Even more radical than a Beuysian notion of Social Sculpture, everything was art to them.) Yet, while looking back at a couple who barazenly lived their art and politics and whose working and personal relationship disintegrated in unison (and just before communism in Eastern Europe dissolved), let us ask: Well, firstly, was it all worth it? And secondly, how, in contemporary society, can we similarly meld politics with art, and art with daily life?
Zofia Kulik (*1947) and Przemysław Kwiek (*1945) met while studying at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts under professors Jerzy Jarnuszkiewicz and Oskar Hansen. Hansen, a Finnish-born architect, urban planner, and theorist, propagated the theory of Open Form, the somewhat utopian idea that art and architecture should shape the collectively shared cognitive space of society vis-à-vis human activity. Art and architecture were thus responsible for responding to the needs of society. Open Form provided an intellectual backdrop for the forthcoming period of the radically inventive Soc Art (also sometimes referred to as Socialist Conceptualism) in 70s Poland. Because Open Form called for artists to be in tune with the public, many so-called Actions (which would loosely be thought of as interactive performances or sometimes games) took on the structure of a call-and-response, locating responsibility also within the "audience”, and creating a context for response or a feedback loop between parties.
The Group Action Game on Morel’s Hill (1971) used such a structure, pitting against each other two groups of Hansen’s sculpture students. It should be noted that this is an early work associated with KwieKulik but "authored” in multiplicity. To quote Zofia Kulik, "We believed in the possibility of smooth cooperation with other artists, in the possibility of collective work, free from the problem of authorship, from worries over ‘what is whose’ and ‘who did what’. An artist should be free and unselfish, and the ‘new’ should be generated at the meeting point of me-and-others, in interaction”. While on a field trip in December 1971, the two groups of students played out a pre-existing discussion en plein air, displacing words with a given set of art materials – a bolt of white canvas, 1.5 meter long poles, red fabric. The first team hammered a series of wooden poles into the ground, visually accenting the hill’s contours, and the second team aurally responded by approaching them uttering a series of "shhh” sounds, while one errant member walked to a nearby church reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Such was the kind of strange, abstract nature of Hansen’s treatment of Open Form. And while this performance may be difficult to conceptually parse, we can take this call-and-response model to, at least in part, speak to the responsibility we bear to each other as humans, and the lack of responsibility taken by the People’s Republic of Poland to protect the well being of its inhabitants.
We again see the color red in the aptly titled Variants of Red (1971), a compendium of slides documenting the work of KwieKulik and others whenever the incarnadine color was present. This project evinces KwieKulik’s obsessive relationship to documenting their own and others’ work, mostly in the form of slides, which would then be stored in an archive known as the Bank of Aesthetic Time-Effects and could be used later as elements in Expanded Cinema performances. In 1974, KwieKulik titled the archive in their home the Studio of Activities, Documentation and Propagation (PDDiU) (1974-1986), their small apartment now functioning as studio and gallery, archive and domestic environment, funded solely through state commissions for craft-based work. After KwieKulik’s dissolution, Kulik assumed the task of preserving the PDDiU, and had the perspicacity to realize that she who controls the archive controls both history and the future by way of reanimating and recontextualizing the past. This impulse to survey and to archive isn’t foreign to the erstwhile technocratic policies of the People’s Republic of Poland, and certainly not unlike the insidious data-mining activities of certain governments and corporations today.
Due to KwieKulik’s social rejection from both state-sanctioned artists and the Polish neo-avant garde (their work about world famine wasn’t sexy or voguish enough for the high-minded conceptualists) and the birth of perhaps their greatest invention, their son Maksymilian Dobromierz, the duo began largely working indoors circa 1972. The birth of the couple’s son catalyzed their best-known project, Activities with Dobromierz (1972-74), a series of almost 900 photographs capturing the toddler in his first two years of life, placed in meticulously arranged constellations of banal objects in the couple’s home. Demonstrating KwieKulik’s interest in bridging logic and mathematics with ontology, these methodically placed arrangements represent various mathematical-logical functions: specifically, an event that could happen to X (in this case Dobromierz), an event that might happen to X, and an event that most likely will not happen to X. In juxtaposition to the works’s highly cerebral conceptual apparatus is the visceral and at times alarming nature of these images – we see the toddler plunked in a cardboard box in a cramped bedroom, surrounded by circles of onions arranged on the floor while a swath of red fabric (again) serves as a backdrop; Dobromierz floating mid-air after being tossed by Kwiek; the baby’s carriage left near some roadside bushes; or a sheathe of fabric enveloping Dobromierz, only months old, with a water kettle nestled against his face. Here, Dobromierz represents the common man in multiple possible conditions that he doesn’t control, or rather, the lack of agency one had living under the People’s Republic of Poland. Yet, on a brighter note, Dobromierz also represented the newness and inauguration of life, rife with potential, and the possibility of action and evolution.
But our question remains: How should we live, and more importantly, how do we take responsibility for our community? Through art? Politics? If we look to KwieKulik, we’ll see a minute study of the causes, effects, and realities endemic to their daily life. This uncompromising inquiry into the quotidian, rather than the ever-popular lofty and macro, delivers us the self-actualization needed to power through the forces that cloud the everyday.
This text was first published in Spike Art Quarterly, Issue 38, Vienna/Berlin 2013.